To read the introduction to our 'How Did She Get There?' study, please click here.
“Childhood was the most instrumental in who I am and what I do.” - Cathy Gilham
Vasiliki Petrou, Group CEO at Unilever Prestige, was raised on an island in Greece and has vivid memories of her childhood: “My vision and outlook on life I really owe to my father. When I was either seven or eight years old, he gave me a book to read, which had the title ‘You Can’ and it was one of the early philosophers on positive thinking. It was really a book about confidence, taking risks, trying things and not to worry about failure. He told me, “you can take risks and I’m behind you, there is always the safety blanket, which is the house, the family.” This thinking that happened in early childhood was key to me always being quite confident in taking risks.”
Maria-Pia De Caro, has a similarly inspiring story. When she was still in the womb, her engineer father wrote his pregnant wife a letter. In it, he said, “I hope our baby is a girl, and I will teach her everything I know about engineering.” Fast forward 35 years and Maria is an accomplished engineer and a strong advocate for women in STEM subjects.
Our conversations with women over the past couple of years have crossed into early life as much as they’ve focused on adult life. When we asked these women whether they thought anything in their childhood had helped with their success later in organisational life, they were rarely hesitant.
Several of them cited one or both of their parents or other family members as role models. These role models instilled in them strong values that they carried through to adulthood. A belief in themselves and the possibilities in front of them were key themes: “My parents never said I couldn't do something…they just told me to work hard and good things would happen and they were behind me 100%” (Pamela Klyn). “He instilled in us that we could do whatever we wanted.” (Louisa Gregory) “They instilled in me a self-belief, an inner confidence.” (Sophie Neary)
Other recurring values that surfaced were kindness, hard work and humility: “The way I was brought up was to work hard and to have values around, truth, integrity, treating everyone the same, keep to those values, you won’t go wrong…I feel I have an inner strength in my core that runs through me that is grounded in these strong values, my parents would not tolerate any sense of arrogance.” (Elaine Lorimer)
Some women highlighted how their parents were equals and there was no division of responsibilities: “There was no gender stereotyping… My mother was always my dad’s equal intellectually and in all financial and other decisions.” (Pamela Klyn) Others commented on the strong women in their family: “I am imbued with the idea of women being able to do stuff… They are fierce South African women. The women were always the more vivid people in the family.” (Leonie Foster)
Not all the women we interviewed had role models in their childhood, however. There was a subset of women whose call to leadership came at an early age as a result of challenging and sometimes traumatic experiences. These experiences resulted in an absence of parenting. Some women found themselves in leadership roles from a young age, holding the mantle of responsibility for themselves and/or their family out of necessity. For them, leadership was born out of crisis. What sprung from these experiences, however, was a strong self-belief in themselves – in their own agency, capability and leadership.
Many of the women we interviewed over the course of two years, had sidestepped ‘Brilliance Bias,’ a phrase coined by Caroline Criado Perez. What is Brilliance Bias? “When girls start primary school at the age of five, they are as likely as five-year-old boys to think women could be ‘really, really smart’. But by the time they turn six, something changes. They start doubting their gender.” When presented with a game intended for ‘really, really smart children,’ five-year-old girls are as likely to want to play it as boys, but six-year-old girls are suddenly uninterested. “Schools are teaching little girls that brilliance doesn’t belong to them.”20
The women we interviewed who had role models and support in childhood, and the women who had an absence of parenting, all side-stepped this Brilliance Bias. For the women who had role models, the beliefs and values instilled in them led them to see their own potential. Those who had leadership thrust upon them, sidestepped the Brilliance Bias because they demonstrated (to themselves and others) their capability and competence from an early age.
Many women we spoke to had to overcome significant difficulties over the course of their adult life, but they believed in their own agency to do this. This sense of possibility was supported and kept intact, in part, due to what they had learnt in childhood.
The pattern we noticed in the childhoods of the women we interviewed may raise complex emotions in some of us. Not everyone had an inspiring role model to look up to and not all of us had childhoods as traumatic as some. Many of us may be somewhere in between. Certainly, none of us can go back in time and change our past. There is, however, a vast possibility for us to re-parent ourselves as individuals, to explore and overcome the things that may be holding us back and to put in place the support we need. Almost all the women leaders we conversed with spoke about how coaching, mentoring and therapy enabled them to work through some of the darker corners of their minds. Furthermore, there are many opportunities for organisations to pick up where family, education or society may have failed. We’ll explore more during the solutions section of this chapter.
How can organisations learn from these insights and enable more women to thrive? Download the paper to explore several powerful and actionable recommendations that we put forward.
20 Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez, March 2019, P101, from “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests”, Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian, 2017